I Was a Political
at Birth in North Korea
My Family Background
My North Korean name is Shin In-kun (South Korean name: Shin
Dong-hyuk). I was born on 19 November 1982. I was a political
prisoner at birth in North Korea.
According to what I know from my father, Shin Kyong-sop, he
was born in 1946 in the village of Yongjung-ni in Mundok District,
South Pyongan Province, near Pyongyang, North Korea. He was the
11th of 12 brothers. It was in 1965, when he was only 19 years
old, that great tragedy struck his family.
One night, before dawn, policemen rushed into his house, carried
away all the furniture, and loaded the entire family onto a truck.
It took all day before they arrived at the camp No. 14, operated
by the State Security Agency (SSA).
moment they arrived there, they were all separated and treated
as beasts. With a few rare exceptions of meeting
his younger brother in the same prison block, my father knew
nothing about his brothers after this. My father was appointed
to work in the mechanics’ unit in the camp, and he did
his job so well that one day my father was rewarded with the
news that he would be allowed to wed a female inmate, Chang Hye-kyong.
They became husband and wife from that time on.
They were allowed to be together for a mere 5 days or so before
they were separated again. From that time forward, my father
and mother were not allowed to see each other with the exception
of some rare special favor in recognition of some outstanding
performance in their work duties.
I know I have a brother who was born a few years before me,
but I have little memory of him. I saw him only 3 or 4 times
until 1996 when he was executed in the camp. He may have lived
with my mother and me when we two brothers were very young. Nonetheless,
I have no memory of him in the same house with me nor do I have
any memory of him in my early days.
I was able
to live with my mother for the first 12 years of my life. My
mother was a farmer, starting work at 5 o’clock
in the morning and returning home at 11 o’clock in the
evening. She was always so busy and I have little memory of any
affection between mother and a son.
She brought home 900 grams of corn for herself and 400 grams
for me, along with 3 pieces of cabbage, marinated in salt, and
a very small bucket full of coal. In fact, she finished work
at around 9:30 in the evening but was forced to attend a daily
Ideology Struggle Session for one and a half hours.
the objective of these sessions is to punish prisoners for
failure to accomplish a work quota, violation of rules, etc.
During this time, prisoners are forced to accuse each other and
beat fellow prisoners. From 11 o’clock, it is curfew and
no prisoners are allowed to be outside their shelter. This is
a standard routine for all prisoners in the camp.
I faintly remember that I often toddled my way to her work with
her but she was always so busy that she did not have any time
to show me her love. Today, I remember my mother but have no
special feelings for her.
that one day I was sent to the 5-year course primary school
in the camp where we learned how to read, write, add and
subtract, and nothing else. I have no memory of the first day
of school. I now remember that there were some 30 children in
each class, two or three classes each grade up to fifth grade
leading to a total number of some 400 children. I was never curious
about where they came from – they were either born there
like myself or arrived in the camp as children.
One day when I was 9 years old, my school teacher, always in
SSA uniform, searched the children and found 5 grains of wheat
in the pocket of a girl. He made her kneel directly in front
of us and in full sight, then began to beat her head fiercely
with a baton for about an hour until she fainted. It was strange
to me that her head never bled but many bumps raised on her scalp
from the punishment. We carried her to her house, and were told
the next day that she had died quietly the night before.
A child was beaten to death and no one was held responsible
nor punished! The school teachers in their SSA uniforms had the
right to do whatever they liked. This is a common and almost
routine case in the camp No. 14, not an isolated or exceptional
Once, when I was 10 years old, I followed my
mother to work in the rice fields, as the children had been
ordered to help
their mothers plant the rice. The work began at 9 o’clock
in the morning and we were under strict order to accomplish the
work quota. On that particular day, my mother was quite weak
and already somewhat pale in the morning. She complained about
a headache. No one was excused from the work as this was the
rule in the camp. I worked very hard to help my mother. Nevertheless,
our work was very slow.
The SSA officer was furious with our slow work.
My mother was ordered to sit on her knees on the paddy road
with her hands
raised straight up in the sun when all other prisoners were having
lunch. Helplessly, I looked on. Precisely an hour and a half
later, the SSA officer came to her and ordered to start work.
She was already weak, badly punished, and had no lunch. Nevertheless,
she did her best to do the work until she fainted at around 3
o’clock in the afternoon. That night she sat on her knees
for two hours and some 40 prisoners accused her of being lazy
at the dreaded punishment session that evening.
When I was 12 years old, I was sent to middle school and then
to work from there on out. I was separated from my mother to
stay with other children. There was no actual class in the middle
school. We were given all kinds of work - weeding, harvesting,
carrying dung, etc. No study, all work.
Plant Construction Work
We children were mobilized for the work of installing a medium-sized
power plant during the period from spring of 1998 to the fall
of 1999. We were between 13-16 years old.
During this period,
I saw so many children killed by accidents. I used to see public
executions and dead bodies, but this was the first time I witnessed
to many children who were killed by accidents. Sometimes, 4 to
5 children were killed a day.
On one occasion, I actually saw
eight people killed by an accident. Three plumbers were working
high up on a tall cement wall, three 15-year-old girls and two
boys were helping them with mortar below. I was carrying mortar
to the children when I saw the cement wall falling. I shouted, “Look
out! The cement wall is collapsing!” It was too late and
8 people were buried under many tons of mortar. No rescue work
took place. The security officers just shouted at us, “Don’t
stop your work and keep working!” Once again, this was
not an isolated case but only one of many such cases in the camp.
Was Tortured by Scorching
At around 8 o’clock in the morning, 6 April
1996, I was ordered to report to school immediately. When I
arrived at the
school, I noted a passenger car waiting at the school. The people
who emerged from the car approached me, no questions, hand-cuffed
and blindfolded me and drove me to an unknown location. I felt
like we were descending in an elevator, and I found myself in
a dark chamber illuminated only by a single light bulb, when
they removed the scarf from my eyes.
Directly before me was a man sitting at a desk
in an empty room. He gave me a sheet of paper and told me to
read it. There appeared
the names of my father’s brothers, two of whom had collaborated
with South Korea during the Korean War and then fled to South
Korea. This is the very first time I understood why my father
and his brothers were brought here. I wrote my name and placed
my fingerprint at the bottom of the document..
This was a secret underground torture chamber in Camp 14. I
was in cell No. 7, a dark and small room with no light except
a small electric light on the ceiling. There I was told that
my mother and brother were arrested at dawn that morning while
attempting to escape from the camp, and I was told to tell him
all about a family conspiracy.
was an awful and unthinkable crime and I jumped with surprise
at the news. The next day I was taken to a chamber, full of all
kinds of torture instruments. I was stripped, my legs were cuffed
and my hands were tied with rope. I was hung by my legs and hands
from the ceiling. Some one told me to confess the truth about
who started the escape plan. I said I had known nothing about
I had no fear at that moment. Even today, my lack of fear at
that time remains a mystery. Someone started a charcoal
fire and brought it just under my back. I felt the heat at
my waist and shrieked. I instinctively struggled hard to avoid
flames. My torturers pierced me with a steel hook near my groin
to stop my writhing, then I blacked out.
I don’t know how long I was unconscious
but I found myself in a cell that rocked from
my own feces and urine. I summoned all my strength to get up
but felt great pain at my
waist. I found blood and wounds at my lower abdomen. As days
passed, the pain grew
and my flesh began to decay, stinking so terribly that the guards
avoided entering m y cell. Next, they moved me
to a cell opposite to mine. A very elderly person was in it.
He said he had been imprisoned for well over 20 years. He had
been reduced to skin and bones. He did not divulge any more about
himself, but I will never forget how he quietly
helped me in my time of need.
Once, as he gave me half of his food ration,
he said, “you
are a young boy and you need this food to stay alive.” With
his kind attention and, perhaps by the grace of God, I began
to eat and my health began to improve. One day after many months
sharing a cell with him, I was finally summoned by authorities
and transferred. This was the last time I saw the old man, a
living skeleton, who had been so kind to me. I will never forget
him and came to love him more than my parents. This was the man
who instilled in me a strength of will that my parents had never
been able to give me.
I was next brought to a room and found my father on his knees
on the floor, and I learned for the first time that he had also
been arrested at the same time as I had. We were ordered to be
fingerprinted and to sign an affidavit saying that we would keep
secret everything we knew about the place and would tell nobody
about what happened to us or what we had seen. This was on November
Mother and Brother Publicly Executed
Then, we were blindfolded again and taken outside. I had been
kept in an underground cell without sunshine about 7 months.
They next took us to a kind of public square where a crowd of
people had gathered. I recognized the place as a public execution
site that was used 2 to 3 times every year. The hand cuffs were
removed from our wrists, and we were told to sit in the front
row of the crowd. We saw 2 convicts, a man and a woman, being
dragged to the site from some distance. As the convicts were
dragged closer, to my shock, they were my mother and brother!
My brother was obviously very weak, his bones clearly visible
beneath his skin. My
mother seemed swollen from head to foot and her
eyes were inflamed. An indictment was read aloud, the details
of which I don’t
remember, except the final words, Chang Hye-kyong and Shin Ha-kun,
enemies of the people, are sentenced to death.’
My mother was first executed by hanging and, then, my brother
by a firing squad. I simply could not bring myself to witness
their murder. I looked at my father when the moment came. Tears
were running down his cheeks and gaze was fixed on the ground.
After the execution, I was again separated from my father: He
was sent to work on a construction site, and I was sent back
to school. Things were no longer as they used be, I was now deemed
the son and brother of traitors. Teachers just punished me repeatedly
and arbitrarily for little apparent reason, and I was the target
of constant discrimination. I urinated in my trousers many times
as my teacher did not allow me to use toilet. I can never remember
not being hungry. One day, I discovered 3 kernels of corn in
a small pile of cow dung, picked them up and cleaned them with
my sleeve before eating. As miserable as it may seem, that was
my lucky day.
My niece was among a group of prisoners collecting acorns up
on a hill one day when they were spotted by guards. My aunt and
sister were separated from the group for questioning as to why
they were so close to the barbed wire fencing.
My cousin was 21 or 22 years old at that time and was very pretty.
Two guards began to fondle her, as her mother bitterly protested.
The guards tied her mother up to a tree facing the trunk and
blindfolded her. They then proceeded to rape her daughter in
broad day light.
My aunt fainted. When she woke up, she found her daughter naked
and lying unconscious on the ground and having trouble breathing.
The guards were nowhere in sight, My niece never recovered consciousness.
Her mother wailed in a loud voice and told everyone she met
in the camp about what had happened. Soon afterwards she disappeared,
and no one knows what happened to her. This is how members of
our family disappeared one by one.
Perhaps, my father’s family line will disappear entirely
from the earth. As tragic as it is, this is not only my family’s
story. The fate of all 40,000 to 60,000 prisoners in the camp
the Garment Factory
I finished middle school and was assigned to work as a sewing
machine repairman at a garment factory. There were a total of
about 2,500 prisoners in the garment factory; 2,000 of them were
women. There were a large number of young women in their 20s,
30s and 40s, and many of them were quite attractive.
The women were not provided with proper uniforms, so their breasts
were easily exposed to the prying eyes of SSA officers. Seven
good looking women are selected to do the cleaning of SSA camp
offices. Not surprisingly,. many women vie for this position
because they are able to escape the normal kickings and beatings
while at work. Even the risk of occasional sexual abuse is considered
profitable for the usual violence and wrath of SSA officers.
Yong-chun was a pretty girl from the same class as me and would
be 25 years old now if she were still alive. She was picked
to do the cleaning job in the camp office. One day, we discovered
that she was pregnant. There were 4 of us from the same class,
and we did our best to cover up her pregnancy. She would certainly
disappear if found to be pregnant. But her pregnancy was soon
discovered and she did disappear completely. No one knows what
happened to her. This is what can happen to any women prisoners
who clean the offices of camp officers.
One day, I was carrying a sewing machine base up to the 2nd
floor when it dropped, as my arms became fatigued. As punishment,
my middle finger was cut off
Sometime in mid-2004,
late in the evening, just as the daily punishment session was
over, when 4 SSA officers strangely appeared and asked us “Which
cell has the largest army of lice?” Some prisoners responded, “Yes,
we have a lot of lice.” The SSA officers said, “Ok,
then, use this water to clean your body.” And they gave
a bucket of water to a group of seven women in a cell and the
other bucket was given to a group of 5 men in another cell.
Nothing immediately happened when they washed their bodies
with the water, except that the water looked somewhat milky
and had the same odor as the insecticides used in the fields.
However, in about a week, red spots appeared all over their
bodies, which began to fester. Within a month, their bodies
were covered with running sores.
They simply could not get up for work. When we thought that
they were about to die, a truck came one day and carried them
away to an unknown location. Had I washed my body with that water
at that time, I would surely not be here today.
One day in 2004, a Park (I am unable to remember his given name),
a young North Korean prisoner, was assigned to my section of
the garment factory. I was instructed to show him how to operate
machines. We became good friends and through our conversation
he opened up my eyes to the outside world for the first time.
This young man had the experience of traveling in several countries
in Asia and told me so many things about his experiences in the
outside world. He encouraged me to escape from the camp at the
first opportunity and to experience for myself a world outside
my existence in the prison camp.
from the Camp
On 2, January, 2005, about 25 of us, men and women including
Park, went up to the mountain to collect firewood. I was in the
lead. I suddenly found barbed wire in front of us. I looked at
the other prisoners around me who were all busy collecting fire
At this moment, a memory flashed through my mind: of my mother
and brother being executed, and the nightmare of the torture
I experienced afterwards. Carefully, Park and I approached the
barbed wire. I had no fear of being shot at or electrified; I
knew I had to get out and nothing else mattered at that moment..
I ran to the barbed wire. Suddenly, I felt a great pain as though
someone was stabbing the sole of my foot when I was passed through
the wire. I almost fainted but, by instinct, I pushed myself
forward through the fence. I looked around to find the barbed
wire behind me but Park was motionless hanging over the wire
At that desperate moment I could afford little thought of my
poor friend and I was just overwhelmed by joy. The feeling of
ecstasy to be out of the camp was beyond description. I ran down
the mountain quite a way when I felt something wet on my legs.
I was in fact bleeding from the wound inflicted by the barbed
wire. I had no time to stop but sometime later found a locked
house in the mountain.
I broke into the house and found some food that I ate, Then
I left with a small supply of rice I found in the house. I sold
the rice at the first mining village I found and bribed the border
guards to let me through the North Korean border with China with
the money from that rice.
Way to Freedom
As I was born a political prisoner, it was only when I had escaped
that I saw North Korean society for the first time. I only saw
it for 20 days, as I was miraculously able to cross the frozen
Tumen River and safely arrive in China in January, 2005..
For about one year, I worked at a Chinese logging
site at a remote mountain near the border and was given an
amount of Chinese
Yuen, equivalent to about 90 USD, for that entire year’s
work. I arrived in Quingdao via Changchun and Beijing by train
I begged a South Korean man at a Korean restaurant in Quindao
for help. He took me to Shanghai and managed to bring me into
the South Korean Consular office there. I am here in South Korea
after spending 6 months in the Korean Consular Office in Shanghai.